Perhaps the first response to Dubuffet’s A View of Paris: The Life of Pleasure is the sense that it could have been painted by a child. In fact, Dubuffet looked to children’s art as a model of unbridled creativity and he emulated it in his work, marking his canvases with scribbles, smears, and crudely rendered figures. Dubuffet was not the first European artist to mimic children’s art. Many artists in the earlier decades of the twentieth century had turned to children’s drawings for inspiration—and to breathe fresh life into European painting. The efforts of these early twentieth-century painters to infuse their art with the seemingly innocent expression of children’s drawing were so successful that they created an artistic revolution. Overturning the rigorous craftsmanship dictated by academic convention in favor of free and expressive rendering became an important step for modern artists. As many painters turned their backs on their formal artistic training, their work demonstrated both an urge to rebel against convention and a desire to tap into what was seen as the unfettered, even primal creativity of childhood.
Irony and discontent
Dubuffet’s style was seen as a particularly aggressive expression of his discontent with Western culture. The Second World War was just ending in France as he painted this canvas and everywhere he was surrounded by its destruction and its implications. One would hardly guess this extreme historical context, given the childlike qualities of the rendering and Dubuffet’s title, which presents Parisian life as a “life of pleasure.” The irony becomes apparent by looking closer at the painting.
Vacillating between joyful and jarring, Dubuffet’s bright reds appear garish in the context of war-torn Paris, which had suffered many hardships while occupied by German forces. Similarly, Dubuffet’s painting style, characterized by roughly handled paint and crude, thick marks, leans more toward unrestrained forcefulness than the presumed innocence of children’s art. Another important source for Dubuffet was art produced by societal outsiders, including those with psychiatric disorders. Dubuffet had begun researching and collecting such art, which he called Art Brut (roughly translated as raw art) at the end of World War II. His interest had begun as early as the 1920s, when he and other modern artists became fascinated with the book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill by the German psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn (above, left). Just as they had looked to children for imaginative forms, these artists emulated what they took as the crude, forceful expressiveness of the mentally ill. In this art, they saw creativity untamed by Western cultural traditions. Dubuffet became so fascinated with this art that he started a collection that is now in a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Although Dubuffet claimed that he did not directly copy the art produced by the mentally ill, or the art of children, their impact on this painting is undeniable.
Dubuffet’s painting, A View of Paris: The Life of Pleasure, is a great example of his efforts to change the way people view and think about art. On the one hand, the painting makes use of multiple perspectives to create a forceful visual impact. Parisian storefronts shift between a frontal elevation seen from street level and a plan, or bird’s eye view, seen from above. Dubuffet used this dislocating strategy in many of his paintings of the mid-1940s.
Dubuffet was a wine wholesaler who sold his own version of pleasure—wine—before becoming a full time artist during the war. He was concerned that art and culture had been overtaken by market forces. Dubuffet also had a contentious relationship high culture and used playful double entendres in his art to parody these forces. One example in this painting is the sign at left that reads “Modes,” the French word for fashion. At first glance this sign simply advertises a clothing store, but “modes” also translates as “ways” as in the ways that something is done. Dubuffet was interested, not in the ways the market drove artistic fashions, but with doing away with the idea of artistic styles and trends altogether. Instead, Dubuffet sought to create art that spoke to the viewer’s memories of childhood adventure and discovery. He wanted art to be freed from rules and other forces that he believed stifled creative expression.
Dubuffet’s painting is both a parody of high culture and also a celebration of the energy of the city and its inhabitants. The people on the street recall stick figures drawn by children, nevertheless they suggest action. The three at the bottom left address the viewer directly with outstretched arms, and the two at right march stiffly off the side of the canvas, as if leading a carnivalesque parade. Carnivals, circuses, and parades also intrigued Dubuffet, and he saw them as sites where childlike playfulness, cultural transgression, and creativity collide. This was the collision he hoped to convey in this painting, and with which he hoped to inspire the viewer.
Jean Dubuffet, Asphyxiating Culture and other Writings, trans. Carol Volk (New York: Four Walls, 1986).
Mildred Glimcher, Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality (New York: Pace Publications, 1987).
Michael Hall, D. E. W. Metcalf, and Roger Cardinal, The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).